March 5, 2010

A few days ago, an article in the New York Times mentioned my new show, Signs of Life, and quoted me talking about some of the resonances the piece has in society today. John Podhoretz, neoconservative columnist for the New York Post and editor of Commentary magazine, took exception to my words and wrote this:

by John Podhoretz

I’m sure you’re looking forward to the new off-Broadway musical, “Signs of Life,” which offers what promises to be a wonderfully tuneful look at the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. But it turns out, according to tomorrow’s New York Times, that the musical really isn’t about the Holocaust after all, which is probably a wise thing, since The Producers got there first with its signature number, “Springtime for Hitler.” No, it turns out, the Holocaust exists as a dramatic trope to teach us lessons about America in the age of Bush:

That show, which had its premiere on Thursday, centers on Lorelei, an artist who agrees to create pretty pictures of the camp for Nazi propaganda but who, with other prisoners, schemes to get her drawings of the real horrors to the outside world.

“The message of our show is not ‘Killing Jews is bad,’ ” Mr. Derfner said. “It’s: ‘What do you do when you find out you’ve been lied to? What is telling the truth worth?’ In the last 30 years this question has been vital to American life and especially so in the last nine years.”

No, this is not, as they say, from The Onion.

My collaborators and I were taken aback by the post, and we would like to respond by posting the following open letter to Mr. Podhoretz.

Dear Mr. Podhoretz:

You are well-known as a protector of the memory of the Holocaust and as someone who, by his own admission, knows “the lyrics to every show tune ever written.” We were therefore dismayed to read your post on Commentary about our new off-Broadway musical, Signs of Life. Your casually insulting aside about the “wonderfully tuneful” quality of the show—which as far as we can tell you have not seen—is irresponsible enough, but to make the ugly accusation that we believe “the Holocaust exists as a dramatic trope to teach us lessons about America in the age of Bush” is contemptible.

The characters in our show must participate in the Nazi propaganda machine in order to survive; when they realize the implications of their participation they face ethical choices that endanger their lives. But the obligation of citizens across the political spectrum to question our leaders and evaluate the truth of their answers did not end on V-Day.

The idea you seem to advocate—that if you put an event as vastly horrific as the Holocaust onstage you should do it as a museum piece, rather than exploring what we might learn from it about human nature—implies that today’s society is no longer capable of a Holocaust, which is a position both false and dangerous.

We would like to invite you to see Signs of Life and to judge based on experience rather than distortion and mockery whether our show honors the memory of those slaughtered in the Holocaust. Please e-mail us and we’ll arrange tickets for whatever date you’d like.

Yours truly,

Joel Derfner (composer)
Len Schiff (lyricist)
Peter Ullian (bookwriter)

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7 Responses to A few days ago, an article in the New York Times mentioned my

  1. Ross says:

    Sorry, Joel, I’m usually on your side but you are quoted as saying, “In the last 30 years this question has been vital to American life and especially so in the last nine years.” To the lay, that does sound like an anti-Bush trope. Perhaps you could expand on how it isn’t? Thanks.

  2. Ross, I do think that these themes became even more important during the George W. Bush presidency. However, the idea that we ought to respond when our leaders lie to us is non-partisan; I can imagine Glenn Beck saying that this question has been especially vital to American life in the last year.

    Ultimately what we found offensive about Podhoretz’s post was the idea that we think our own political views are more important than the deaths of thirteen million people. Finding meaning in something–which is what we’re trying to do–is very different from assigning it purpose–which is what Podhoretz is saying we’re trying to do.

  3. Jeff says:

    The fact that you caught John Podhoretz’s eye is pretty cool, I think. Publicity is publicity!

    And we’ll be seeing your show tomorrow afternoon (Saturday). Looking forward to it!

  4. Jeff, I might be there, so if you see me say hi!

  5. Charleston Dave says:

    Quoted in the Times and attacked by a famous neo-con…t’es bien arrivĂ©, mon p’tit chou!

    On the topic of concentration camp creativity, I once wrote a review of a Spoleto performance that included excerpts from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The performance was achingly beautiful, and the location serene: Mepkin Abbey, the monastery outside Charleston. I closed my review, for the Post and Courier, by noting that it was a spiritual piece in a spiritual setting. Two days later, the newspaper published a letter to the editor attacking my review, saying that the piece couldn’t have been spiritual as I claimed, because it didn’t mention Jesus.

    So…from someone who has engaged rustic nitwits within a bucolic setting, my congratulations on engaging the attention of erudite nitwits on a larger stage.

  6. Rick says:

    Sounds like your stirred up quite a controversy.

    Break a leg!

  7. Charleston Dave, your experience seems par for the course. (I sang the Evangelist in the St. John Passion at Mepkin and it was one of the most divine things ever.)

    Rick, thanks!


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